Gospel: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

Focus of the Heart

What place does Lent have in today's society?

It's Lent again. The time of self denial. The time to pray more, fast, and give to others. Those statements almost have the sound of drudgery. The little child in all of us cries out, "Do I have to?!"

We might feel some reluctance to "celebrate" Lent, for the season means a change in daily routine. But, instead of changing routine, we might consider changing its focus. Turn away from the self and see the wider picture. That's what Jesus recommended when he addressed prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

Popular Translation

Jesus told his followers:

1 Make sure you don't pray or fast or give to the poor, just so others will see you. If you just show off, you will not receive a reward from your Father in heaven.

2 When you give to the poor, don't blast it around town like the hypocrites do. They show off in synagogues and on street corners so others might admire them. They've already received their reward! 3-4 Instead, give to the poor so quietly even your best friends won't notice. Your Father who sees how quietly you give will reward you.

5 When you pray, do not show off like the hypocrites. They love to stand up and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so they will shine before others. They've already received their reward! 6 Instead, go off by yourself and pray to your Father quietly. Your Father who sees how quietly you pray will reward you.

16 When you fast, don't pretend to look sad like the hypocrites. When they fast, they look dirty on purpose so they will shine before others. They've already received their reward! 17 Instead, when you fast, wash your face and comb your hair. 18 This way, you'll shine quietly before God, not before others. Your Father who sees how quietly you fast will reward you.

In Matthew, Jesus addressed attitudes of popular piety. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving had a place in the daily lives of the faithful. In the spiritual practices of his followers, Jesus did not discuss "What?" He discussed "How?"

Literal Translation

1 Hold (yourself) back not to perform your righteous (duties) before men (in order) to be seen by them. But, if indeed (you do them to be seen), you will not have your reward from your Father, the (one) in heaven. 2 Whenever, then, you give alms, do not have trumpets blow in front of you, like the hypocrites in the synagogues and the streets do, so they might be given glory by men. Amen, I say to you, they received their reward. 3 When you give alms, do not let your left know what your right does, 4 so that your alms might be in private. And your Father, the one seeing you in private, will reward you.

6:1 "righteous (duties)" were usually done to fulfill the Law. In the context of the following verses (prayer, fasting, and almsgiving), "righteous duties" referred to popular religious practices among Jews, since they were practices beyond the dictates of the Torah.

6:2-3 "give alms" is literally "do merciful (deeds)." Recipients of such deeds is understood to be the truly needy.

6:2 "do not have trumpets blow in front of you" This figure of speech might have had a historical root. It was possible trumpets blew at the Temple as a signal for a collection or fast in extraordinary times.

6:3 "do not let your left know what your right does' can also be translated "do not let the (friend) on your left know what the (friend) on your right does." Whether the translation stresses one's own hands or one's intimate friends, the point is clear. Do not make charity a strictly public matter.

6:4 "in private" can refer to privacy or to a natural habit. The later is the character trait of a loving person, who gives freely without bringing attention to the self.

5 Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, because, having stood, they love to pray in the synagogues and the street corners, so they might shine before men. Amen, I say to you, they received their reward. 6 But you, whenever you pray, go into your storeroom and, having shut the door, pray to your Father, the one in private. Your Father, the one seeing in private, will reward you.

6:6 "...storeroom and close the door." The storeroom of a household held food stuffs and was the only room in the building that had a door. This was an extreme analogy that conveyed the personal nature of prayer.

6:6 and 6:18 "your Father, the one in private" The meaning of "in private" is unclear. The phrase could refer to the place or condition of the petitioner. In other words, one prays to the Father in private as well as in public. Or, the phrase could stress the personal (i.e., private) relationship the petitioner has with the Father.

"In private" could also refer to the identity or power of God. The God of the Jews was a faceless God. So, he reveals himself from a private (i.e., "hidden" or "unknown") place. No one could truly know God, only be known by God. The God of the Jews also ruled the inner most depths of the heart. In this way, he was truly God, "in private" as well as in public.

16 Whenever you fast, do not put on a sad face, like the hypocrites. For, fasting, they (keep their appearance unkempt) so they might shine before men. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But you, fasting, groom your hair and wash your face, 18 so that you, fasting, might shine, not before men, but before your Father, the one in private. Your Father, the one seeing you in private, will reward you.

6:16 " (keep their appearance unkempt)" is literally "disfigure their faces." During a fast, one would remain ungroomed to put up an appearance of suffering that fasting demanded.

6:17 "groom your hair" is literally "anoint your head." Olive oil had many uses, including personal grooming.

Almsgiving, prayer, and fasting represented practices of popular piety during the time of Jesus. They were especially popular among the Pharisees (see Luke 18:9-14, for example). These practices stood beyond the dictates of the Torah. They might have even been in response to the Great Commandment (the fusing of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:8). How did the faithful love God above all and love neighbor as self? Fast, pray, and give alms.

In Matthew, Jesus did not criticize the practices. But he did comment on their motivation. What marked the difference between the follower of Jesus and the Pharisee? The way he or she prayed, fasted, and gave alms. Did one perform these practices publically to increase reputation in the community? Or did one pray, fast, and give alms quietly to please God?

Like many of his other parables and sayings, Jesus painted the situation in the extreme to make a point. Not ever Pharisee practiced his religion so blatantly in the open just to curry favor with the faithful. And not every Christian could exercise his faith so quietly no one would notice. In fact, faith behaviors do garner attention and comment. So, Jesus just wasn't criticizing Pharisees for acting pious in the public arena, or asking his followers to keep religion in the private sphere. He was asking a far more fundamental question. Why does a person fast, pray and give alms? For self-serving reasons? Or selfless reasons?

Lent is a time to ask ourselves a simple question. Why do we act as Christians? If our answer gravitates more towards ourselves than others, it is time to reassess our motivation. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are only means to an end. We practice them to open ourselves up to God and the needs of others. So, during Lent, we should focus on relationship, not on reputation. When we sincerely seek God's will and the good of others, reputation will follow, for good or ill. As one wise man said, "My reputation is the responsibility of others."

Catechism Theme: Lenten Practices as Forms of Penance (CCC 1430, 1434)

Lent is a time for a conversion of the heart. Because "prayer, fasting, and almsgiving...express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others..." (CCC 1434), these practices fit well in season of Lent. They are practices of penance, not necessarily for past sins, but for present blindness. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving open our eyes and ears, hearts and minds to others and to God.

What resolutions have you made for Lent? Why have you chosen these resolutions? Do they serve you or others? How?

Lent is a time for self reflection and for action. Lent is not a time to merely "give up something." It is a season to do something. For others. And for God. It is a time to focus the heart.

As you look forward to Lent, do you feel anticipation? Or, apprehension? (Even indifference?) Over the next week, resolve to focus on others and God. Even for a few minutes each morning. This will help you make this Lent a time of spiritual growth.